The Kids Are All Right
In an era when much fuss is made about the “death” of print, independent presses such as Minutes Books, SUPERMACHINE, and Greying Ghost are as vibrant and inventive as ever. It is precisely because the format in which most readers encounter text has become digital, that the idea of the book itself has shifted. In a sense, print has gained aesthetic capitol by becoming something more akin to an art object. Whether you choose to be troubled by it or not, we may well be in the beginning of an era in which reading an actual bound book— a stack of paper— could be considered nostalgic. Call it the boutique-ification of the publishing world: the strictures that defined the possibilities of the printed word pre-internet and Kindle no longer apply. Readers are becoming collectors: as appreciative of the tactile and ultimately ephemeral nature of the work as, of course, the writing. Such tendencies bode well for the presses that deal in contemporary poetry, where the robust tradition of the slim-volume chapbook rubs elbows with the D.I.Y. ethos of the ‘Zine movement.
This is certainly the aesthetic underlying Paige Taggart’s Polaroid Parade, published by Greying Ghost Press (www.greyingghost.com). The chapbook is a series of poems that work like a stack of photographs; spoken through shifting narrators, seen through different eyes looking through the same view-finder. On the smaller rectangular pages (about the size of a photograph) the poems are framed boxes. “We the fraternity of regrets” begins the second poem “(I speak for myself), broke into a gated/ community…”. In the way that actual Polaroid photographs materialize slowly— the image emerging from faint grays to full resolution — the poems in the series seem to foreground their own inception, to emerge as you read it. “Her teeth are puzzles, with pens in her mouth she records you, over there,/having a picnic” later develops into “She makes dinner her vocabulary. She makes a/finger her future, pointing that over there is mine.” Taggart is facile, able to cleverly play on the possibilities of narrative, without sacrificing that sense of what’s really at stake. The sixth poem begins:
I’ve been writing fifteen-memoirs; I make Polaroids fill sheds. I use hammers,
build ledges; then obliterate, in the same vein. I’ve asked for a healer to bring
relief, to twist the arm of every accomplice. To stop calling myself dear Mr.
and Mrs. I-don’t-know-your-name.
In a tiny space, the futility of remembrance, or rather of any art form’s ability to perform that act, echoes the collapsed notion of a unitary self, a “Reduction in the glass vial of/ my multitudes.” Indeed, who is the “I” in memory and how much does the act of remembering affect it? Crystalizing this notion, the proclamation: “We hold up a signature of ourselves to the sun” is pleasurably and subtly tricky. It is something like looking at a photograph of yourself at that party last summer in that it can never really take you “back.” You are no longer the person pictured, either, and the photo stands in for the experience. It becomes that party the way your signature becomes “you.” More than poems about Polaroids, then, these poems become them and even address them: “We proclaim, Polaroid, Polaroid you’re blind.” And, hauntingly, the series drifts away with a same sense of the ephemeral, the passing: “Cross trees, hail litanies, let Polaroid collapse into wading.”
Published by Minutes Books (minutesbooks.blogspot.com) Ben Fama’s New Waves, though not as formally focused, seems similarly involved with the interface between the technological and the emotional:
and now you always
appear in my chat list
if only you would
take me into the sea
after that I would ask
you to paint over everything
I could imagine such lines coming from the voice of a not unsympathetic and somehow affected robot, trapped somewhere between the ephemeral world of his wiring and a desire for meaning, even mysticism. The language of these poems is typically direct and unadorned, lucidly shifting in register and often hiding a layer of complexity. “Whoever you are, I’ve tagged you in a/ dream,” Fama writes, “Please escape my thoughts with care.” At their best these subtle inversions of logic create compelling ambiguity, drawing the reader in with the signposts of gravitas. At other times these types of moves are self-consciously affected, creating a distanced, campy effect. For instance, the lines “Branches lifted slowly,/ as if under water. The universe is breathing/ she said. I said yes. What is it saying she said./ I said I don’t know,” reach for what might be an unattainable kind of scope. I cannot tell if this is meant earnestly, or as an ironic commentary on the futility— in this hyper-conscious, technological era— of capturing the sublime and the mysterious. Nonetheless, New Waves certainly succeeds in creating a kind of spare cosmology, “Own the zodiac, own the script.” It declares, powerfully, “One by one my dreams come to follow.” The post-hipster astrologist poet, then, declaring his love, or perhaps the painful absence of it, on G-chat.
And it is Fama’s press, SUPERMACHINE, (www.supermachinepoetry.com) that has published Genya Turovskaya’s absolutely stunning Dear Jenny. The underlying ‘project’— here a series of ten epistolary poems addressed to “Jenny”— seems to lend itself perfectly to the chapbook form. Turovskaya’s lines drift across the page in a sprawling manner that on some level underscores the constant motion and sense of travel that informs the piece. As if already receding into a kind of horizon, the series begins “Dear Jenny, I feel I am growing smaller,/ the map on my lap is the world, not the map of the world.” From the get go, the tension between the ‘real’ world and the way it is represented is foregrounded and moments of self-consciousness, of the broken down fourth wall, recur. The narrative anxiety in the fourth poem (“I no longer trust myself to tell it/ like it really is”) becomes splintered in the fifth (“Because it is my mind, we live inside it, Jenny, you and I,”). By the eighth poem the distance between narrative voice and subject becomes merged in a surprising, almost spectral way: “I have another/ face underneath this face./…I have another life underneath this life.”
At times, Dear Jenny (and to varying degrees all three of these chapbooks) seems to pick up a thread that leads back to Walt Whitman himself. The freewheeling electricity of the long lines evokes the old master and there are certainly moments of what might be termed a very democratic kind of celebration. This can be seen in the sixth poem:
Jenny, let me sing to you in my language, my great language, my beautiful language
which can be your language too.
I know you can hear me. Can you hear me? Listen! I remember how
our feet shuffled to this very song, this light-headed song.
As a counterbalance, however, Turovskaya seems in equal measure to retain control with her fastidious and surprising line breaks, and her sparse, poignant images. The underlying mood is certainly not a celebratory one:
I want to say that I have made something stop
moving: the sweeping machines, the weeping machines. I was ready
to commit acts of folly and great danger: Jenny, I have slipped
my books into your library…
One cannot receive a letter without thinking about the distance it has traveled, without holding the envelope, without unfolding the text. A letter is also a leap in time, a snapshot from the past, a kind of vessel. It is a medium that—like the printed book threatens to be— in its obsolescence gains poignancy. There is nothing like opening up an envelope: there is nothing like cracking open a book.
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